Philip Nelson, Chris Whitty, Adrian Smith, Julia Slingo and Alan Pitt (L-R) at the event.

Philip Nelson, Chris Whitty, Adrian Smith, Julia Slingo and Alan Pitt (L-R) at the event.

UK research and innovation look set to enter a period of change, which could ultimately position research closer to the heart of government. What are the opportunities and challenges associated with this? The UK national Academies hosted a PolicyLab event on this topic on Wednesday 23 March.

Sir Adrian Smith FRS chaired a panel including Professor Philip Nelson FREng, Chair of the RCUK Executive Group, Professor Chris Whitty CB FMedSci, Chief Scientific Adviser in the Department of Health and formerly in the Department for International Development, Dame Julia Slingo OBE FRS, Chief Scientist at the Met Office and Alan Pitt, Deputy Director in the Government Office for Science.

Adrian set the scene by giving an overview of recent developments in the research and innovation landscape, from the outcomes of the 2015 Spending Review and the government’s plans to implement the Nurse Review, to the Higher Education Green Paper and forthcoming National Innovation Plan. The discussion covered a wide range of issues, but focussed on three key implications of placing research at the heart of government: how will research be coordinated? How will scientific advice be provided? And what is the role of research in other government business?

Coordination of research and innovation

The Nurse Review recommends the creation of a new body, Research UK, to improve strategic coordination of research. The panel noted that how this works in practice will depend in part on the role Ministers choose to play in strategy, and from the audience Sir John O’Reilly emphasised the need for strategy to be driven both from the top down and the bottom up.

Overall, coordination was thought to be improving already through a mixture of informal and formal mechanisms. For example, Julia Slingo talked about the way the Met Office works with the Natural Environment Research Council. However the relative decline in Departmental research budgets (compared with the science budget) over the past decade can make it more difficult for Departments to collaborate effectively with Research Councils.

Beyond government, Chris Whitty said the UK is already among the best in the world at coordinating public sector research with that in industry and charities. In health, the Office for the Strategic Coordination of Health Research and in development, the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences have led the way.

A key issue for research coordination will be the Global Challenges Research Fund, which was introduced into the science budget at the 2015 Spending Review. Through it, £1.5 billion will be spent in line with Overseas Development Aid rules over the next five years. This was seen as a long-term opportunity for the sector, but the cause of a short-term headache. Many pointed out that investing the funds through individual Research Councils could be a missed opportunity for this fund to support cross-disciplinary research and collaboration across government. Much of the funds are yet to be allocated, and many on the panel hoped to see broad views taken into account to ensure the money is invested effectively.

Scientific advice

The UK has many existing systems for providing scientific advice in government, which are highly regarded internationally. Alan Pitt spoke about mechanisms at the centre of government, including the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology and the work of the Government Office for Science. These tend to focus on issues with implications across government and work through their links to the research community. Julia also spoke about how Met Office science is driven by government objectives around resilience, disaster preparedness and climate change.

The existing UK system was also thought to work well in emergencies. For example, the Natural Hazards Partnership, which was developed after the ash cloud produced by the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland in 2010, was able to draw experts together across disciplines to provide timely advice in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.

Although scientific advice works well in current structures, areas for improvement were identified. Chris Whitty drew a distinction between the UK’s successes in providing rapid advice and relative weakness in commissioning urgent research. While Departments can initiate research on an urgent basis, the Research Councils are not set up to do so. Philip Nelson responded that the Councils hope to set up a fund for research in emergencies to address this.

The panel were asked whether evidence from different disciplines, particularly the social sciences, is given appropriate weight in government. They all agreed that expertise in social science and the arts is important to their work and argued that it is increasingly well represented. For example contributing to work on communicating risk, understanding behaviour, and designing technologies to support an ageing population. Chris Whitty illustrated this point, describing the central role played by anthropologists in developing the government’s response to the Ebola crisis, and he challenged the social science community to communicate these successes and engage positively with policymakers.

Research in government

For research to really play a role at the heart of government, does it matter that few decision makers have a scientific background? Dame Julia said it was not a barrier, but it is a challenge, which pushes scientists to clearly communicate the policy relevance of their work. Alan Pitt was positive about the level of scientific literacy within government, and was optimistic for the future as the number of students taking maths and science at A level has been increasing. Both Chris Whitty and Julia Slingo spoke highly of the science and engineering intake of the civil service fast stream, and Philip Nelson praised the work of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee for their effective scrutiny of science policy.

For the future, the panel agreed that more opportunities for knowledge exchange between academia and Whitehall could support further improvement. The Research Councils and the Met Office have initiatives in place for the staff to move between roles within and outside their organisations, and the Society runs its own Pairing Scheme. However, it was suggested that the UK is not at the leading edge in this area and could learn much from countries like the USA.

Opportunities and challenges for the future

Summing up, the panel focussed on a few key issues. For UK research, Dame Julia saw cross-disciplinary coordination as a challenge, with the Global Challenges Research Fund as an opportunity that could help the community to meet it. For scientific advice, Chris Whitty called on the research community to improve the way it synthesises evidence for policy. For research in government, Alan Pitt hoped to see continuing improvement in the understanding of science in policy, and vice versa.

This was the first in a series of four PolicyLab events that the UK national Academies will be hosting. The next event, Building a better research system? Supporting excellence in post-Nurse structures, will take place on Monday 18 April at the British Academy.